Apple’s secret – Mac and iPhone will never be ready for business

Last summer, it looked like Apple was finally going to make its Macs and iPhones enterprise-capable, giving hope to those who wanted a more stable, less failure-prone option at the office.

Soon, it appeared, Macs and iPhones would no longer need to come in through the back door, or be relegated to “special” departments such as software development or marketing.

Don’t count on it.

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Bolstered by Windows Vista’s travails and the advent of OS-neutral Web apps, the Mac is no doubt on the rise in business. Even IT pros have begun warming up to the Mac. After all, a business-class MacBook Pro costs the same as a business-class Windows PC, so there’s no cost disadvantage to buying Mac hardware. And I hear consistently from IT folks who manage both Macs and PCs that Mac hardware tends to fail less frequently than PCs do and that its OS is more stable than Windows, translating into lower internal IT support costs.

(Apple’s support plans cost about $30 more per year than what a Dell, Lenovo, or HP charges, and they require you to bring a Mac in to an authorized repair shop, which can be an issue for IT when the Macs do have problems.)

Moreover, Apple’s new emphasis on business capabilities in 2009 seemed to be the official boost that business Mac users had longed for. Among them, the new  Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard, which added native Microsoft Exchange support to its Mail, Address Book, and iCal apps, as well as improved VPN and firewall capabilities.

As for the iPhone, its iPhone 3.0 OS update added landscape email access, copy and paste, and Exchange calendar invite support — all features desired by business users. It also added support for more Exchange security policies, such as camera disablement, remote wipe, certificate-based authentication, and policy encryption.

Yet the reality of enterprise Mac and iPhone adoption stands in stark contrast to the promise these changes have held for Apple to push its products deeper into business.

Mac and iPhone adoption are growing — but not in the enterprise

Despite Apple’s growing reputation, adoption of Macs and even iPhones by large businesses remains tiny: about 3.5 percent for Macs, according to Forrester Research, and about 3 percent for iPhones, according to TBI Research. For Macs, this represents zero growth. For the iPhone, its growth remains insignificant when compared with the BlackBerry’s 63 percent share of the enterprise smartphone market.

Outside the enterprise, Macs are doing better, accounting for either 8.8 percent or 9.4 percent, depending on whether you believe Gartner or IDC, respectively, up from 8.6 percent a year earlier (both firms agree on that number). And iPhones are doing a lot better in the broad market: iPhone sales have steadily zoomed all year, and now represent about 30 percent of all smartphones sold in the U.S., according to ChangeWave Research — closing in fast on the RIM BlackBerry’s 40 percent share. Moreover, Gartner reports that 99.4 percent of all mobile apps sold in 2009 were to iPhone users.

So with Mac OS X Snow Leopard’s and iPhone OS 3.0’s improved business capabilities,why isn’t Apple doing better in the enterprise?

I believe the answer is simple: Apple has intentionally created a glass ceiling it has no intention of shattering. My conversations with Apple employees over the past decade have always been off the record when it comes to the topic of Macs in the enterprise. The company has had no intention of signaling any active plans to serve the enterprise.

In a sense, Apple views enterprise sales as “collateral success” — a nice-to-have byproduct of its real focus: individuals, developers, and very small businesses (designers, consultants, and other “knowledge worker” types).

Sure, there are some retail and professional-services businesses that have gone all-Mac — I know a midsize veterinary practice in San Francisco that is all-Mac, for example. And sure, there are examples of midsize and even large businesses adopting Macs — though usually as an option for just a portion of the workforce. But the reality is, despite showing signs of currying favor with the business market, Apple retains a decidely non-business persona.

Macs in enterprise: The bigger you are, the harder it is

One factor working against Apple’s prospects in business environments is that fact that businesses that have gone all-Mac have had to figure out themselves how to make it work. For smaller businesses, that’s not so hard to do.

Microsoft Office for Mac has perhaps 90 percent of the capabilities of the Windows version, for example, and if you need Visual Basic support, you can use the older Office 2003 version rather than the VB-less Office 2008 version. For email, there are clients for Exchange, Lotus Notes, and Novell GroupWise available. The Mac OS, of course, supports POP and IMAP email servers as well.

Mac OS X supports Active Directory and LDAP, so you can enforce Windows Server-based policies on Mac users. And if you want to manage software distribution on Macs, you can use a Mac OS X Server to do so, with the benefit of its ability to share policies with Windows Server. Plus, there are several good departmental-scale client management tools for Mac OS available.

Using Parallels Desktop or EMC VMware Fusion to run Windows lets you cover the specialty needs some users may have that the Mac can’t support, such as running ActiveX-based apps in Internet Explorer or running Windows-only apps like Microsoft Visio. (To use the Mac’s ability to run Windows means you need to pay $75 for the virtualization license in addition to whatever your Microsoft group license agreement’s per-user fee is for Windows.)

So for most white-collar workers working in companies whose IT staff is able to deal with sourcing and supporting two platforms and handling the fairly minimal integration between Mac OS and Windows, the Mac can be brought in as-is.

But the more controlling and/or farflung an organization is, the harder it is to support Macs. Standard asset management tools don’t have good Mac clients, for example. Remote management of a Mac beyond what an Exchange policy can enforce also becomes tricky, due to the lack of good Mac client management support in Windows Server or in tools such as HP OpenView, IBM Tivoli, LANdesk, and CA’s management suites.

The departmental focus of Mac OS X Server also doesn’t lend itself to central management across multiple office locations, and the need to bring in a Mac to an Apple Store or authorized repair shop also becomes problematic outside of major cities or when there is no local IT staff.

And the Mac’s lack of presence outside basic applications also becomes an issue. (Apple maintains a list of business Mac apps that’s worth perusing to see if your apps have Mac versions.) Although some specialty apps, such as IBM SPSS’s analytics software, have Mac versions, most don’t — or they have only limited-functionality versions.

Office 2008 for Mac is a great example: Not only does it not support Visual Basic, but its Exchange client, Entourage, doesn’t support away notices or allow users to see which addresses are contained in an Exchange-hosted group address. These partially capable clients make it impossible to assure everyone has the same capabilities, and thus creates exceptions that IT has to manage.

Thus, the more applications your organization uses, the more of a headache these Mac software issues create. That’s why in large companies, the Macs tend to be clustered in specific departments, such as marketing, where they can be managed locally and for which the specialty software the users need is available for Mac OS.

iPhones faces the same scale ceiling

The situation for the iPhone is no different: If remote management, compliance adherence, and large-scale management are necessary, you’re out of luck. There are no native Lotus Notes or Novell GroupWise clients for the iPhone, just limited-capability Webmail access. The iPhone’s Exchange policy support is much better than what Google Android or Palm WebOS provide, but nowhere near the level of BES (BlackBerry Enterprise Server) or what Windows Server can do with Windows Mobile.

You can distribute configuration profiles to iPhones via email or Web sites that contain Exchange ActiveSync policies and VPN settings, but you can’t monitor whether users have installed them or track what version they have — something many public companies must do to meet various compliance requirements. Having a local IT person hook up each iPhone to a USB connector and view its settings in Apple’s iPhone Configuration Utility is not a workable option in large businesses, where their scale requires automated management.

Yes, companies like Good Technology are beginning to offer iPhone management capabilities, but their products are still in early stages and not as complete as what’s available for the BlackBerry or Windows Mobile devices. Perhaps in a year or three, these third parties will have brought the iPhone close to par with these two enterprise-class mobile platforms. But they alone can’t do it: Apple needs to deepen the native security and management capabilities of the iPhone, and IBM and Novell have to get serious native clients into the Apple App Store.

Apple’s not acting on enterprise needs

Mac OS X Snow Leopard tantalized us with its Exchange-capable Mail, iCal, and Address Book apps, as well as its support for Cisco VPNs without needing a Cisco client. But Apple’s implementation stopped at the midsize company ceiling. So, while it’s great to access Exchange email via Mail in seconds rather than in Entourage’s minutes, it’s frustrating that it doesn’t support away notices, visibility into group addresses’ members, or delegated email accounts — the kind of features that help companies avoid using local IT people to do simple tasks.

Likewise, the support for Cisco VPN clients in the Mac OS X’s Network system preference means you can avoid worrying about having a compatible Cisco VPN client available, yet it’s a nonstarter for large businesses that an IT person has to manually enter the shared security key on each Mac — Apple didn’t bother letting the Network system preference import a secured configuration file as Cisco’s own client app does.

To help satisfy enterprises’ needs to minimize the “touch” time on handling a broken computer, Apple could have set up a premium support offering in which IT could overnight damaged Macs to a repair depot, as all the major PC makers offer. But it has not — and neither has it helped a third party take on that role in its stead.

And to address the reality of remote management and the need for auditable installation logs, Apple could have created the mechanism for the iPhone to be updated over the air and to report its current status. That would let third parties like Good and Sybase integrate the iPhone fully into their management software, even if Apple decided not to create a server version of its iPhone Configuration Utility (the most straightforward option for customers, as RIM found when it created BES).

These are just a few examples of what Apple has not done, despite years of requests from its customers. As I noted earlier, Apple officials say privately that they’re not interested in investing in the enterprise market, likely because such a move would greatly increase the complexity Apple would have to deal with. Plus, Apple crashed and burned in the 1990s when it last tried to enter the enterprise market, and since Steve Jobs returned in 1997 to help Apple, he has firmly steered Apple to the high-end consumer and individual professional markets. And has kept it there.

Apple is nothing if not determined and intentional. Not investing in the enterprise capabilities in the Mac and iPhone, nor investing in the ecosystem to support them, has to be intentional.

Apple is clearly engaging small businesses with Snow Leopard and iPhone. Any large company is welcome to adopt Apple’s technology, but that’s just an extra cherry on top for Apple — not its goal.

You can use Macs in the enterprise — but it’s up to you to make it work.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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